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April 16, 2010

Hegemony and its Discontents

I've always taken it for granted that American culture is the most important culture in the world, and the evidence is irresistible. Its influence is felt everywhere, its modes copied endlessly, its forms enriched but not fundamentally altered by other societies. Here in Paris, for example, hip-hop has a broad appeal, which is why even the late Serge Gainsbourg, that master dilettante, ventured (awkwardly) into the genre. For a lot of French kids America is a giant middle finger raised to their parents, who tried to keep the U.S. out. They wear our brands, guzzle our Big Macs, and crave our gangsta rap. Our rebel styles are so attractive that it's plausible to argue, as one Frenchman with North African roots did recently in Le Monde, that the riotous behavior of the much-feared beurs--the teenaged sons of North African immigrants--is actually a product of American culture. Certainly the mass burning of cars in Paris (especially on New Year's Eve) recalls Detroit at its grimmest more than Algiers at its most insurrectionary. As does the rise of nasty French rap music by groups like NTM, a/k/a Nique Ta Mère, which means, yep, "fuck your mother." America, the great target of French calumny, is also the great source of French alterity, as it's been for a very long time.

But living in Paris has changed my perspective on American culture. I listen to the radio quite often here, especially a public station called F.I.P., which plays music in an astounding variety of idioms. I download whatever turns me on, and as a result I've amassed a collection of music I would never have heard in the U.S. Much of it is highly fusive, but not in ways I'd expect. For example, the style known as "balkan" mish-mashes gypsy, Romanian, Greek, and klezmer modes, usually with a rhythm that is Afro derived. My favorite is a song by a Romanian émigré named Shantel, in which he declares--in English, natch--"Some people say that I come from Russia/Some people think that I come from Africa/But...I come from Planet Paprika." The beat, I should add, is reggae.

Gentle hipster, you may be more familiar than I am with gypsy-reggae pop. But certainly this genre and others like it aren't mainstream in America the way they are here. On any given hour on F.I.P. you might hear Billie Holiday, followed by the Mexican-American singer Lhasa, the Malian musician Salif Keita, and, God help you, Nique Ta Mère.

Of course, Paris has been an entrepôt for foreign styles ever since Benjamin Franklin brought his glass harmonica to the royal court. The city's fascination with Asian culture in the 19th Century helped create the consciousness that led to impressionism. Josephine Baker and the Ballet Russe were, in different ways, major sources of French modernism. But no matter which styles the French imported, their own cultural values remained front and center. This Francocentrism persisted well into the 20th Century. Long after rock made it impossible to sing plucky or plangent ballads backed by an accordion, the French were still at it. (Pace Johnny Hallyday.) Until fairly recently there was a state-mandated limit on how many English-language songs could be played on the air. The idea seems ludicrous now. Though people paste stickers reading "en français s.v.p." on English words in subway ads, it's more like a plea than a protest. This season there are several American musicals in town, and no one would think of translating the songs. (Although I've had a rollicking time reading the French titles to "Officer Krupke.")

The point, in case you wondered when I would get to it, is that France has become a center of stylistic blending. They do it so well in part because it resonates with their cultural history, but also because the current wave of immigration from Africa has produced a conflictual combination of obsessive anxiety and fascination. The array of Afro-based music that passes through Parisian recording studios is a mirror of this mutually ambivalent embrace. It's an agglomeration that sounds neither African nor European. It's something new.

I suppose one can say the same of the music scene in London, but not in that multiculi capital of the universe, New York, where most "international" music passes by unnoticed except in ethnic enclaves. We don't look to the rest of the world for inspiration; we expect to inspire everyone else. And, in music, that usually means drawing from the big four forms: jazz, rock, country, and blues, each of them heavily inflected, if not directly shaped, by African American styles. So central is the black imagination to our aural culture that nothing that lacks its signature seems serious. But many musics take their cues from elsewhere. We squeeze them into a genre called World Music, largely confined to university stations in the dead of night. Nothing enters the mass pipeline that doesn't have that magic American beat.

I'm as imbedded in this orthodoxy as any other Yank. I tear up and grow homesick when I hear Sam Cooke on the radio here. But, as heretical as it seems, I've begun to suspect that the very centrality of black style that makes American culture so dynamic also prevents it from gaining a wider consciousness of the world. This is no way a reflection of the limits of black music. Rather, it's a corollary to the self-centeredness of our political life. Consider the bizarre perception that Barack Obama is some sort of foreign incursion into the American pantheon. Would he dare invite a Malian artist to the White House?

In France, there's no diminution of interest in African American styles, but they exist on an equal footing with every other kind of music, including soulful froggy ballads. It's the melee of all these modes, in endlessly inventive variations, that seems French to me now. And that too correlates with the nation's political life. In French pop one hears what France could become if it got over its hysteria about immigrants. This music points not only to a multipolar world but also to France's role in it, as a mediator of cultures. That possible future is the reward for losing what France had for many centuries and no longer does: hegemony. In American pop, on the other hand, one hears an insularity that can only flourish in a country that takes its dominance for granted. Yes, we rule the world, and because of that we won't let the world in.

As a young clubber heading out for a night of Brazilian-Balkan-punk might say, with a practiced pout, "dommage."

April 16, 2010 6:03 AM | | Comments (4)


I have lived with my British family in Paris for twenty years. None of my four teenage kids have embraced rap or anything American nor their mates either from what I have observed.

There are three huge working full time opera houses in Paris each with its own orchestra. There are six 100+ professional symphony Orchestras. There is the sixth concert hall due to open in a year.

There is a classical/contermorary music education programme operating in schools second to none that I have seen, so it's no suprise that all symphonic concerts and opera are sold out. And as for visual art, well just try it. Amadeaus Paris

I've lived in New York for the last ten years, and your impression of the music scene here is somehow skewed, because I regularly read about and attend international artists that play all kinds of music. These concerts are typically very well attended, and the enthusiasm for the music is high. It seems that in your article you judge the variety on one music station in Paris against the entire culture of the U.S. which generates a lot more original music than does France. America has historically produced unpretentious music which lends well to a larger mass of people. I believe that a big factor why the radio station plays artists from Mali is because Mali is a far away exotic place, which represents the station's connection to different peoples and cultures. And you listen too and you think that you're one with the world. I prefer to listen to music styles I like and I research within that theme for artists I haven't heard of before. I think a real music aficionado wouldn't consider a radio station as his main source of music familiarity and appreciation.

I'm afraid this article simply serves to perptuate the idea that Americans are amazingly self-focussed. They seem pleasantly surprised to find the rest of the world at least as complex and interesting as their own. Who would have thought?

Hi Richard - just ran across your name and was very pleased to see that you're still out there commenting on stuff. I'm very happy the French held onto the accordion, just to make the comment relevant. Hope you're well, and I always fondly remember working with you.
Kyle Gann

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